With the continued growth of Steel Challenge over the last few years, particularly among junior shooters, I spend a lot of time during lessons helping new shooters understand all the complexities in stage shooting strategy.
So with that in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to write a series of articles discussing shooting strategies for all eight Steel Challenge stages. This is something that is particularly important since, contrary to popular belief, not every stage has a default “best way to shoot it;” even more importantly, the “best” way for you to shoot a stage actually depends upon your current skill level more than anything else.
Before jumping into this, I want to make sure we are all on the same page with respect to stage nomenclature. When I wrote my first book back in 2017, I introduced my plate numbering system for discussing shooting orders. At the time, many people thought it was a unique way to look at this, but for me it was simply the best way to ensure everyone was using a common reference system that eliminated the confusion I saw.
The numbering system is very simple. With the left most plate on the stage called #1, the rest of plates are then numbered two through five going from left to right, with the stop plate being called “S.” The key here is that the plates are numbered as you see them standing in the shooting box and not as they appear when presented on a piece of paper like in the rulebook.
The reason for this is that on some of the stages, such as Roundabout, the diagram represented on a page looks different than what you see when you stand in the box on the actual stage and people were confusing which plates were which. Speed Option, Showdown and Roundabout all look different when standing in the box than how they seem to appear on paper in the rulebook.
My numbering system eliminates this potential confusion between a graphic representation of the stage on paper and the physical layout of the stage. Plate #1 is always the leftmost plate that you see and plate #5 is always the right-most plate, with the rest just numbered sequentially. Try it next time you’re out on the range and I think you’ll end up liking it.
One of the big issues I continually see is shooters who try to shoot a stage in the same way as a top-tier Grand Master would, only to struggle with poor times and miss penalties. Believe it or not, there is not one of the eight stages that I shoot today as I did when I was in my first year or two of shooting Steel Challenge.
For this first article in the series, I’m going to discuss some of the overarching strategies and concepts which apply to how you should approach every stage, and then I’ll devote one entire article to discussing each stage in detail over the next eight installments.
First and foremost, we need to understand the two primary aspects for determining the best way to shoot a stage. Number one is an assessment of your skill level in selecting a shooting order that may not be optimal from an absolute minimum time standpoint but is one that is easier for you to execute. This ensures you are likely to make fewer mistakes when under pressure like in a match.
A good example of this is once again Roundabout. Many of the top shooters, including myself, draw to plate #1 which is at 15 yards, which allows you to exploit the minimum transition sequence for the stage. However, I see many shooters drawing to plate #2 or #4 which are both at only seven yards. When I ask them why they do this, they typically tell me that they are more confident drawing to a seven-yard target than a 15-yard target. Indeed, if this guarantees that they hit the first plate 100 percent of the time then for them, based on their current skill level, it is the correct choice.
The second factor which many shooters—even experienced ones—fail to take into appropriate consideration is risk. Picking a shooting order which is known to result in the minimum amount of transition time and therefore will result in the theoretical fastest time possible (all else being equal) may not be the wisest course of action if it is more risky for you than another order.
Accepting a less risky shooting order that results in a run time 0.2 to 0.3 seconds slower on average, but is something you can execute with 100 percent accuracy, will actually result in a faster stage time for you. The reason for this is that even one makeup shot on a stage run can easily cost you 0.5 seconds or more, and a miss, with its accompanying three-second penalty is a complete disaster.
If you need more proof that this is a smart competition strategy, ask yourself if you’ve ever had a stage run time where you had one or more makeup shots that was faster than when you shot the run five for five? The answer—never. Your fastest times will always be when you go five for five. There’s a hint in there somewhere.
One other item you want to take into consideration when selecting a shooting order is the number of what I called back in 2017 reversal transitions. With the exception of Five To Go, every stage requires you to execute at least one reversal transition to complete the shooting order, no matter what order you shoot the plates in. A reversal transition is simply when you have to reverse the direction in which you’ve been shooting the plates after hitting any individual plate.
The reason this is an important strategic consideration is that: one, every stage but one requires you to execute a reversal transition and, two, other than the draw to the first plate, a reversal transition takes the most time of any single act in Steel Challenge, so you definitely want to minimize the number of reversal transitions you execute on a stage to the absolute minimum—ideally, just one. Luckily, for every stage there is at least one shooting order where you only have to perform a single reversal transition.
This is also the one exception to my general “minimize risk” rule. Unless you know you simply can’t execute a shooting order that has only a single reversal transition without always having one or more makeup shots, select the slightly risker order that produces only one reversal transition. It will definitely save you time and is one less thing you’ll need to change as your skills improve.
Finally, don’t get locked in to one shooting order as your skills improve. Even if you’re already using the recognized “best” order for a stage, don’t be afraid to experiment to see if you can push your times down even further. I did a lot of experimenting with Smoke & Hope, until I settled on an order where I was consistently shooting sub-1.8 second Rimfire Pistol Open times without any makeup shots.
Starting with the next installment, we’ll take a look at what is one of the most interesting stages from a shooting strategy perspective—Smoke & Hope. So until next time, remember, slowing down is never the right answer, never. You need to learn to see faster.
Article from the September/October 2023 issue of USPSA’s magazine.